THE PILGRIMAGE to the northern impoundments takes place each summer, the lure of gigantic barramundi being too much for those anglers who have targeted bass, yellowbelly and cod for the past few months. The first time I visited Lake Proserpine was in November 2002, and on that trip the lake was plagued with south-easterlies that funnelled through the gap held apart by the Peter Faust Dam wall and spread across the lake, chopping it into a bone-jarring expanse of water.
Over the four days there were very few boats on the water because of the poor weather, so it was hard to get a handle on different parts of the lake with so few anglers to get information from. Being so windy, the mornings were cool and a spray jacket was standard apparel morning and evening during a supposedly hot northern summer. The incessant wind pulled the surface temperature down rapidly and the wave action vitamised the surface to an overall temperature of 23.9 degrees, found in most parts of the lake. Such a low temperature is not conducive to good barra fishing (I prefer to look in water that’s at least 26 degrees). Sure, the fish will still bite if the lure gets close enough to their face, but generally the barra will start to go dormant, stop feeding and lose much of their territorial and aggressive instincts. The four big barra that I saw caught on that trip were taken on lures that were diving 4m plus, even during the dark hours when you’d expect them to be hooked up closer to the surface if the water temperature was warmer.
Check the water temperatures at all areas fished. If the water is 26 degrees or less and no fish are found within lure range start searching elsewhere. Locating bait balls will hold you in good stead. Mark them on the gps and keep checking their location. They too will move away or down deeper when the going gets too cool. If the bait is balled up tight, they are obviously concerned about their own well being and your quarry may not be too distant. Start running deeper diving lures to get below the cold-water layer on the surface.
Heavy irrigation below the dam wall will often result in the water turning over. This pulls the overall temperature of the water column down and over a prolonged period, this along with the wave action atop, will all but shut down the fishery. Thermoclines, which are often comfort zones for bait and barra, are disturbed and harder to locate.
Over a still and hot period of weather the top layer of water greatly increases in temperature. At the onset of a windy period, the initial wind chop will push that warm water layer along and you may detect a tepid area of water, in that part of the lake opposite the direction the wind is coming from.
Should the balmy weather deteriorate and the wind blows from the south-east and over the dam wall and across the lake, get straight over to the submerged trees out from the big stands of timber and check for fish and bait on the sounder. Note the water temperature here. If you can’t locate any fish start looking in the timber. The warm water will eventually be driven right onto the bank on the western side at the back of the big dead trees, and you’ll find yourself amongst the fish in just a metre or so of water so gently does it. This is electric motor country as the wind will drive you aground and you need to fish parallel to, and keep out from, the shallow shoreline. At this depth, engine noise is likely to spook any fish laid up here so go the electric.
The barramundi are in the clear shallow water only because it’s warm; in other conditions they prefer somewhere more secure. When in such clear shallow water these fish lay hard up against timber, actually rubbing against it, usually head down and tail up to avoid the bright light in their eyes. The incessant wind will eventually muddy and cool the warm, clear water and when the fishing goes quiet many anglers blame the water turbidity. In fact, the fish have usually gone by the time this happens, having left as soon as the water started cooling.
Continual choppy surface conditions will drive the barra to deeper water to get away from the agitating wave action knocking them against their once-protective snags. They won’t move away from the timber a short way and stay in the open if the water is shallow; there’s less turbulence in the deeper water so the fish will leave the shallows and put up with the cooler temperature elsewhere.
While fish are in such shallow water and looking at the bottom, your lures must be in their face to have any hope of eliciting a strike. Remember that the water is cooling so they’re not out and about on the hunt and are becoming more edgy due to the turbulent conditions.
Chances are, some of these fish will be standing on their heads with their mouths on the bottom. Get your lures to the bottom and bounce them across it. Large Squidgies with beefed up hooks are the go or bibbed, very deep diving minnows even though the water may only be a metre or so deep. The lure has to be cast well past the structure so that it chisels the bottom when it’s retrieved past the habitat.
So the fish have left the scene. They most likely won’t leave the timber altogether because it’s a good place to hide, and even at a lake capacity level of 30% there’s still 4-6m of water around the dead trees on the inside edge of the tree line. Now it’s super deep diving lure time and with timber popping erratically out of the surface, trolling is often difficult. Start deep jigging soft plastics and work the tree bases, and try for a natural look and action with the plastics.
A 9/0 Tarpon hook has the tensile strength to override any big barra amongst the timber. One of these buried in a large Squidgy body with no lead head will sink naturally down the sides of the tree trunk, and short, sharp jabs on the rod tip will cause it to rise and fall after being initially sunk to the depths. It has a natural action and with no lead head it’s hard for a hooked and head shaking barra to throw the lure out of its jaw.
Your rod and reel will struggle with a fish larger than 90cm in the tight timber so make sure you use heavy braid lines, very heavy drags that remain smooth even when wound to oblivion and a rod that can take a terrible punishing. Remember that the fish are now in a cooler surrounding and lure accuracy close to the timber is imperative.
During the prime times of the season there could be a couple of dozen boats on the water at Proserpine, and it’s the same story at all the other popular impoundments. Lake Proserpine can handle many more boats than that, however, and even with that number of vessels afloat you’ll only catch glimpses of them far away amongst the timber.
Boat concentration is much higher near the dam wall, and this area has accounted for many big fish in wide, open water with very little structure. This is the place for the light line buff provided there aren’t too many vessels likely to get in the way of an epic battle. The northern edge of the bottleneck, the dam frontage and the southern edge of the bottleneck all produce good fish, mostly during the dark hours. The fish seem to come on the bite from around 6pm to 10pm and then all goes quiet. Very early morning also produces fish but the bite wanes by 8am. The congregations of bait also disperse once bright light hits the water’s surface. The shadow of the dam wall gives you extended fishing time here on bright mornings.
Too much boat traffic will drive the barra down and away so if a number of boats are working this area, troll a line well out from the wall. If you can find bait balls out there on the sounder, the fish will be close by.
Fishing with lures that have 1m-4m bibs during the dark hours seems to be successful. Lures that dive to 4m are mandatory when boat traffic gets hectic and the fish start to sink.
Those boats that work the wall often work both sides of the bottleneck and they tend to stay in water 4m plus, primarily (I suspect) to suit their lures.
If a barramundi has to, it will lay on its side in water so shallow that it will be touching the bottom and its pectoral fin on its other side will protrude through the surface. Leave the other boats out on the 4m-mark and troll the shallows. One-metre bibbed minnows or trolling surface poppers in shallow water will work a treat for these fish. The sloping banks and deep water close to them ensures that this water remains reasonably clean even during extended blows.
If you get weary of ducking and weaving around the boat traffic, abandon the area and enjoy your own company on the south side of the lake. The trollers tend to leave it alone but it produces some very big fish very early in the morning and in the evenings during the dark hours. The trick here is to troll in no more than 2m of water with lures way back, away from boat noise. Work right into the shallows and when in water under 1.5m, be prepared to continually clean weed from the hooks. Trolling 40m to 50m of monofilament line makes it difficult to tell if the lure is fouled but it’s less of an issue if you’re using braid.
These shallows will be very murky if it has been blowing for a while so it will be your call.
Lures for the southern shores should be shallow or surface swimmers and on my most recent visit (December 2003), Halco’s RMG125 Scorpion with a 1m bib, Rapala’s Barra Magnum 10 (a 10cm lure) and Halco’s 120 Laser Pro with the 2m bib pulled all of the fish. The one thing they all have in common is that they’re all metallic gold – as are many other lures that work well here – although I did manage a few fish on the bright lime green colour scheme.
We landed 19 barra in all, seven of them over 1m and the biggest at 115cm. We weighed that one in the Environet and it pulled the Boga Grips down to 44lb.
John Lees was on board and swimming a Barra Magnum out the front of the wall and pulled a 109cm fish on his Sabre rod (which could handle a small marlin) and Calcutta 400 reel loaded with 150m of 50lb braid. It took him only five minutes to catch and release that fish, which I estimated to be around 16kg. On the very next troll he hooked up in the same spot and the fish took the 150m of braid and some of the monofilament backing before it buried into itself and broke off. I put the scales on the reel and that fish had been pulling all that line against 3kg of drag! The mind boggles at what size some of these fish would be. We lost another in similar circumstances and a boat nearby lost two when the bibs broke off the lures.
There is a call to cull the big fish out of this system so that small fish get a chance to mature. When it comes to choosing between catching a lot of small fish or a few giants I’d prefer the giants, but they really must be looked after. These oversized lumps of fish need careful handling if they are to survive release.
I’ve spent more than 20 years chasing barra and trying to get a big fish into fragile and sometimes undersized nets when the pressure was on. It’s usually the undoing of a lot of big fish. My idea of a big barra landing net used to be one with a thin cord net, thin strong frame, fitted to a handle that wouldn’t sag under the strain. Speed through the water was the essence and unless you had that, the fish would often spook and dictate the state of play boatside.
So it was with scepticism that I took with me on this last trip, one of Dave Irvine’s gigantic Environets. QFM readers will have seen plenty of the smaller versions but this one is truly a work of art and it’s essential for anglers who are serious about looking after these big fish so they get to fight another day.
If you haven’t yet visited Lake Proserpine, hop on the internet and visit [url=http://www.peterfaustdam.com/] where you can check out some good images of big fish and all the guff on accommodation in the area. I recommend the Lions Camp Kanga resort, which is only a kilometre from the well-appointed boat ramp.
And when is the best time for a big barra at Lake Proserpine? Two days before and four days after the full moon and the hotter months of November to April. I’ll be heading back on those moons in December this year.
1) Damien Huckstepp with a 110cm fish taken on a 125 Halco RMG Scorpion. Gold coloured of course.
2) Tough lures for a tough job. This barra taken on Halco’s 125 Scorpion with a 1m bib.
3) Dave Irvine’s Environet is the best tool to use when landing large barramundi.
4) The fish is weighed in the net and then released. Fish handled in this manner revive much more quickly and swim away more strongly than those hoisted aboard immediately – an action that usually results in fish thrashing and becoming knocked about.
5) Damien Huckstepp with a 103cm fish caught and released near the dam wall.
6) Michael Bok with a 115cm fish taken on a one metre bibbed 125 Halco Scorpion.Reads: 6408